Designing in Another Morality

As designers we all construct and manipulate the moral universe of our game. When we ask a person to play our game, we often require them to pivot their worldview and ethical framework. In this post I discuss the moral power of designers, and then move on to my approach to re-framing player expectations to create a better play experience.

Roleplaying is a Moral Experience

When I design games I primarily think about the experience players will have at the table. I don’t always think about the impact of that experience. In reality however, roleplaying games are conversations, and conversations hold discursive power. How we construct and behave in the universes we create has a direct effect on how we view things, and what we value. And what we value has a direct effect on how we create and behave. Because of this, playing an RPG is a morally significant experience.

While all games are morally significant, they don’t usually intend to explore moral concepts. Most games are imaginatively oriented or thematically oriented, or both. For example, our game Alas for the Awful Sea, is both. It explores the themes of poverty, power, and loss. But it also invites players to be another person and discover another world, for the sheer narrative pleasure of doing so.

So, if a game is not directly aimed at exploring a moral concept, does the designer still need to be morally deliberate? The answer is yes, for two reasons.

Firstly, because we should think about the moral effect a game has on its players. That is why as designers we should be respectful of gender orientation, resist cultural appropriation, and avoid toxic stereotyping.  Depending on the game you are creating, this can be easy or it can be hard.

I like to create games set in the past. In the past, people believed a lot of things we view today as morally abhorrent. Resultantly, I often struggle to balance my thematic drive (which is for players to experience real issues faced by real people) with a need not to repeat the past’s mistakes. In Alas, I struggled to marry a desire to explore historical oppression and limitations facing women with a desire to have significant and powerful female characters.  Ultimately I leant towards the latter, as I was more interested in including satisfying female characters than accurately capturing gender oppression.

This was a conscious design choice that I made. I could have made the opposite decision. But I would need to be careful of the function it played in the game so that it operated as an exploration of gender oppression rather than a form of gender oppression.

But you probably already knew all of this. The moral effect games have on players is important, and we all tend to think about it when designing games in one way or another.

However, there is a second reason designers must contend with morality. It is integral to good game design. As designers, we need to think about how morality and ethics function within the world of our game, and marry that up with player’s moral expectations. The rest of this blog post will delve further into this concept, and what we can do to avoid distancing or alienating players.

Players Have These Pesky Moral Expectations

When a person sits down to play a roleplaying game they bring with them two value frameworks:

  1. The moral and ethical framework by which they live their lives; and
  2. Their moral and ethical expectations for the game ahead.

Self-evidently these two are not the same thing. After all, most players approach a game of D&D ready to hack, slash, steal and generally behave atrociously. Hopefully they don’t apply these same appetites to their daily lives.

However, for a player’s “in-game” moral expectations to be separated from their daily ethical framework, a process of moral and value re-education needs to take place. In the case of D&D this re-education has been done for us by popular media. Before I delve into how designers can harness moral reeducation, let’s think a bit about what happens if players dive into an alien moral/value framework with no reeducation.

When players aren’t morally prepared for a game, one of two things happen:

  • The gap between player knowledge and character knowledge becomes untenable: I recently played my first game of Legend of the Five Rings (which I found to be a confusing mix of embarrassing cultural appropriation and great game design), with a number of other first timers. It was almost every five minutes the GM had to tell a player “no, your character wouldn’t do that, because of xyz.” Another course of action was taken, the same response was given. It was frustrating for the players who didn’t understand what was expected of them.
  • The gap between player beliefs and character beliefs becomes untenable: I absolutely love the game Dogs in the Vineyard, and it ticks a lot of my boxes for a well handled excursion into an unfamiliar morality. However, it requires a great deal of player buy-in before you start playing. I happened to witness a session where such buy-in was absent and it lead to a lot of jokes about the stupidity of the church at the complete cost of player immersion. Players found the actions of their own characters silly and unconvincing.

So, what should game designers do?

As game designers, we need to assess our player’s expected moral/value framework, and if necessary, build ethical reeducation into our game. We need to equip GMs (if present) to achieve player buy-in and avoid a disconnect between players, their characters, and the world.

I thought I’d share my processes for tackling this issue.

Designing in a Moral Framework

Understand how morality and moral values function in your game

Be self-aware. Take some time to consider how morality functions in the world of your game. How does this differ from the expected player mindset?

When we do this we need to consider two things.

Moral Framework: The framework by which characters in this world determine what is right and wrong. For example, in Dogs in the Vineyard, the moral framework is provided by the Good Book and the King of Life. In L5R it is largely provided by tradition. In these two games there is a moral compass which overrides individual values. In Alas for the Awful Sea however, as in many other games, the moral framework is simply one of individual choice, based on a character’s values.

Ask the Question: Does my game have an imposed moral framework that differs from individual value based decision making?

Moral Values: Moral values are things which people prize, which they can use to help them determine what is right and what is wrong. For example: Honor, Family, and Truth. Many moral values won’t be related to your game, and will just be for individual players to decide. I had a person once play a character who was really intent on helping children. This was a moral value for them: it was right to help children. It was wrong to leave children in need. That’s a personal characterization choice.

However, sometimes a moral value will be indispensable within the context of your game. L5R couldn’t function without Honor driving moral decisions. Truth is not as important. Alas for the Awful Sea could struggle to function if people didn’t invest moral value in Family. Honor isn’t nearly as important and Truth can pretty happily be thrown out the window.

Ask the Question: Are there values that are indispensable to my setting, which hold much greater significance than in the expected player mindset?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you need to ask yourself another question. It’s one of my favorite questions.

Ask WHY?

  • Why is this the case within the fiction of my world?
  • Why have I, as a game designer, chosen to make this the case? What am I trying to achieve?

(You might find you need to answer these in the reverse order.)

In the case of Alas, these questions actually have very similar answers. In a poverty stricken world, strong family ties and cooperation are the only way to survive. In the 19th century, there were even populations that made a conscious effort to marry within the family to avoid the dispersing wealth. Capturing this historical element was a central component of Alas, and that required a value system change.

Once you’ve answered these two questions, you’ll have a much clearer picture of the role these values and moral frameworks play within your game. If these are robust, players will have a much easier time adjusting to them. If they are arbitrary, players are likely to ignore them.

So now we know the what of the moral reeducation we need to undertake. Let’s delve into the how.

Immerse Players in Your Game’s Morality

That sounds great to say doesn’t it? But how, as game designers are we going to do that? Here are two ideas that have helped me.

Be Explicit

So your world has a different morality to that which players are expecting. Well, since they’re not expecting it, you’re going to need to tell them about it. It sounds obvious – and it is obvious if you’re self-aware about the morality of your world. There’s no need to be subtle. As long as your ideas are robust, players are likely to understand this is an important part of the game.I’m pretty straight up about this. Here’s an example from Alas:

Make Players Complicit

Make players part of the morality of the world: There’s lots of ways to do this. A lot of these require GM assistance, but let’s help them out as much as we can. Here are some ideas:

Make it part of world building: Is your game one where players take part in building the world? Cool! Throw values and morality into the mix. A GM technique I like to suggest when appropriate is to give players the what and have them figure out the how. E.g. “Out here, on the ice crusted fringes of civilization, honor is the most important thing a person has. Why?” Since players have now helped build the world, they are more likely to naturally understand and pivot to encompass its moral framework.

Make it part of character creation: One cool thing that happens in character creation for L5R is that the game says “hey new character, here is the code of values you subscribe to. Which of these do you most identify with? Which of these do you least identify with?” This forces the players to think about the values, and internalize them straight into the character they create. This creates player buy-in, and gets them on board. The next step, of course, is to ask “why?” Why are these values important, or unimportant? We actually did a D&D 5E hack where we replaced alignment with a value selection system that asked “what?” and “why?” It worked pretty well.

Use important NPCs: Players will care about NPCs that are important to their character. And, just as in real life, the beliefs of these NPCs will have weight. This is especially the case if the NPCs need the player characters. E.g. “My oldest friend, help me restore my honor before I must live my days as a loathed outcast” / “Sister, help me be accepted back into the clan, for the future of my children.” Etc. This may be something the GM needs to do. If you want these value based imperatives in your game, help the GM out and include resources for creating these kinds of dilemmas.

So as you can see, morality and more values are an important consideration for RPG designers no matter what your game is about. Got thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them.

5 thoughts on “Designing in Another Morality

  1. Brandes Stoddard says:

    I like what you have to say here. If you’re at all familiar with Tyranny, it is a rare case of a video game that sets out to shove the player into an unfamiliar and unpleasant morality (to induce eventual rebellion). To follow its model, for some of the players’ early decision points, the GM should frame only two or three viable choices, all of which are contrary to the players’ morality. After doing this a few times, the players should either catch on or begin to plan The Revolution.

    • Hayley Gordon says:

      Hi Brandes,

      Video games certainly have a power to control player actions that is absent in RPGs, so they have a bit of an easier time. That said I think Tyranny does an excellent job of creating different viable philosophies for you to follow within the frame of “you are working for an oppressive Tyrant.” I actually think that’s what makes the game unique, because it recognises shades of grey and allows you to make your own choices within the context and muddle through things your own way. As you’ve pointed out Tyranny does a great job of shaping player’s expectations, and we could certainly learn a lot from it in the realm of RPG design.

  2. Ryan Towers says:

    Interesting read, personally I do think this is where the Gm should step in a bit and say straight up “This world has very different morals to ours” and explain them to a extent. While I do agree morals is something you should keep in mind when designing a game I do think if you make it clear that it is a different time then I don’t see it as much of a problem. I normally use Pendragon as a example here, Pendragon says straight up that women don’t really matter in this world and says it straight up about it, it doesn’t explore it or anything, it just was a part of that world and Pendragon is all about living in the most king Arthur like setting possible, it says you can change it but it makes no effort to help you

    • Hayley Gordon says:

      I think that’s generally true Ryan, as long as you consider the way players are likely to react to that at the table. Pendragon sounds like an interesting example. There is a clear design impetus to define women’s roles in order to be faithful to the source material. The question would be whether this is this actually necessary to achieve the desired feel at the table. I think my group would probably come down with a “no.”

      I think the approach of the 5th edition is quite reasonable at dealing with this. It’s like “here’s how it was but also we’re going to support you in making the decisions that you want.”

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